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‘I like to listen’

Student chaplain Riekje van Osnabrugge is retiring. During the Covid lockdowns, she was forced to do more talking than listening. “To me, that feels like a very outdated way of connecting with students.”

In her conversations with students, Riekje van Osnabrugge always liked to listen. But during the pandemic, she had to find news ways to reach students, posting meaningful quotes on Instagram and putting together meditative city walks for students to download instead of talking to them face to face.

And her efforts paid off. Thanks to Van Osnabrugge’s work, NewConnective – the organisation she works for – was able to reach a lot of students. NewConnective is a platform for all philosophically minded students, regardless of their religious beliefs, and for students who want to connect with others and are looking for meaning in their lives.

The student chaplain became quite adept at social media during the lockdowns. The Instagram video of her dancing while frequently asked questions and answers flash across the screen is a great example. Question: ‘Are you still a student yourself?’ Answer: ‘Of course, I’m still learning every day.’ Question: ‘Isn’t that a little old-fashioned?’ Answer: ‘Thinking about life never goes out of fashion.’

Candle wax on keyboard

The video is well made and funny, without coming off as clunky or contrived. Van Osnabrugge: “Fortunately, there are people at NewConnective who know how to strike the right tone to reach our audience through Instagram. But I still have mixed feelings about talking to a camera. I like to listen, but for a while now my work has mostly involved talking. To me, that feels like a very outdated way of connecting with students.”

Leading grief support groups, for instance, allows her to listen carefully to what others have to say. Those sessions also moved online during the pandemic – there’s still candle wax on her keyboard from blowing out the candles she lit for lost loved ones. “We’ve been organising these grief support groups for years, and they’re always well attended. They attract all kinds of students, who are all connected through their grief for a lost loved one. That creates a bond – as they start recognising things in each other, they build mutual trust and are able to share intimate thoughts and feelings”, says Van Osnabrugge. She believes that students are also willing to talk about their grief online because it has such a clear and widely recognised cause: the death of a person close to you.

Coffee & Meaning

Getting a group of students together to share their feelings about the lockdowns proved to be a lot more difficult.NewConnective tried to reach students with a series of digital get-togethers, dubbed Coffee & Meaning, where people could ‘drop in’ for a chat about what was on their minds. But the concept didn’t work in practice.“We couldn’t find enough people, which made those who did attend feel uncomfortable, and they wouldn’t come back for the next session. Then we’d get a few new people, but not enough to build momentum. We definitely saw a need for contact, but we didn’t manage to get a consistent group together”, Van Osnabrugge says.

Severe loneliness among international students

Various studies have shown that students felt lonely and depressed during the lockdowns. Van Osnabrugge noticed it too: “Students often mentioned it in passing, during activities that were able to go ahead despite the measures. Many international students in particular struggled with severe loneliness. But loneliness seems to be something that many people are ashamed of – it’s a topic they only talk about when there’s trust, when you’ve already connected with them through something else.”

‘Loneliness seems to be something that many people are ashamed of’

Of course, loneliness among students is not a new phenomenon, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, Van Osnabrugge believes. There is also more concern for the wellbeing of students these days. “VU Amsterdam has allocated a lot of extra money for student counsellors. That’s great, but loneliness isn’t something you fix by just talking about it. You have to be able to connect with others. And that’s exactly what NewConnective is trying to accomplish through its activities. I hope the university realises that NewConnective can really make a difference when it comes to student wellbeing.”

Less space for grief

Someone who’s struggling with difficult feelings doesn’t necessarily have psychological issues, Van Osnabrugge says. “It’s good that it’s becoming easier for us to talk about wellbeing, but some of the issues people struggle with are also just a normal part of life, and we shouldn’t focus exclusively on mental healthcare.” In this sense, Van Osnabrugge shares Flemish psychiatrist Dirk De Wachter’s analysis, who notes that we live in a society where there’s less and less time and space for us to deal with grief, and that people who feel unhappy immediately turn to a psychiatrist for a quick fix. De Wachter argues that being unhappy is also part of life.

Housing shortage

Van Osnabrugge started working as a student chaplain in 1993. And even though the issues young people struggle with haven’t changed all that much, she has seen changes over the past three decades. “The pressure on students has increased”, she says. “They feel like they always have to show the best version of themselves, always have to be doing something, and that they barely have time to make ‘wrong’ choices. Students are quick to think that they don’t meet the standard, but if everyone feels that way, the question of course is: who sets the standard?”

‘Students feel like they always have to show the best version of themselves’

The housing shortage has also had a major impact on students’ lives, according to Van Osnabrugge: “Everyone is constantly looking for a place to live. Rents are high, so almost everyone is working side jobs to make ends meet. That causes a lot of anxiety and stress.”

Brave enough to open their hearts

One constant throughout Van Osnabrugge’s tenure has been the prejudices people have when she tells them she’s a student chaplain and a Christian. “Some people immediately assume that you want to convert students, and there’s a lot of suspicion. And people who are Christians themselves sometimes have a very normative view of how a pastor or Christian should think and what they should believe.”

Prejudice is an important issue for NewConnective, which is why the organisation hosts dinners centred around the topic. During Ramadan, for instance, they bring together people from different backgrounds to discuss controversial topics, such as religion, vegetarianism and gender. “At these dinners, we want to speak openly about how we tend to label others, but in a safe environment: students are allowed to be themselves at NewConnective, and their beliefs and religious convictions are an integral part of that”, Van Osnabrugge says.

And that brings us back to listening, one of Van Osnabrugge’s strongest qualities as a student chaplain. She will miss the conversations she had with “students who were brave enough to open their hearts”, as she puts it, and they will always be with her. Like that girl who hinted that she had grown up with an abusive father, or that boy whose friend had committed suicide. “Whenever I was able to be of comfort to people like that, I would always think: what an incredible job I have.”

Riekje van Osnabrugge retired on 1 January. On 1 March, there will be a farewell reception at the Thomaskerk (pdf met uitnodiging aan hangen). Marleen Blootens will be taking over her responsibilities.



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